Monday, 25 April 2011

I’m writing a book on Advanced Family History for The History Press which is due out at next year’s Who Do You Think You Are Show and I’ve spent some time thinking about what records are and why we keep them. I could find very little written about this topic at least in regard to post-medieval records. In the end the paragraphs below didn’t make it into the book, but I share them below in case readers have any comments:

Records can perhaps be divided into two types active and passive. We might say that they are active when they provide evidence that a particular action took place and was recorded be for legal, business or personal purposes. From July 1837, for example, births, marriages and deaths have had to be registered by law in England and Wales.  And it is basic business practice to note down when invoices are issued and paid. Photographs, letters and memoirs are also records of evidence as they confirm a particular event. A family holiday may be recorded in postcards, photographs and even remembered in an autobiography written years after the event. Active records, because they record actions or decisions, are more likely to survive than passive records.
Passive records those which were used for planning and analysis, where the evidence of a particular action is not required or assumed. Any notes you make while working out where ancestors should sit on the family tree fall into this category. More seriously The National Archives has file after detailed file planning the D-Day landings in 1944, in which almost every eventuality was accounted for.  And afterwards it is often sensible to analyse what went well and what didn’t, so that lessons can be learnt for the future. War diaries are kept, for example, so that official historians can examine what each unit did under fire. Also included are working papers, such as drafts of novels or scientific workings.
Occasionally there are overlaps when sets of records fulfil both functions. Account books not only record payments made and received but can be analysed to reveal a company’s or a family’s financial state of health (see below). RAF Squadron Records Books record each operational flight made by individual aircraft and show which aircrew flew in which plane. But they were have been examined by academics studying particular campaigns or losses of aircraft Indeed they are divided into the daily “Summary of Events” forms (Form 540) and the more analytical “Detail of Work Carried Out” forms (Form 541).  
A particular study might well involve both types of records. Research into the loss of The Titanic could use the blueprints of the ship’s construction and the voluminous enquiries into the disaster conducted by the Board of Trade and the US Senate, which are both examples of passive records of planning and analysis. Also under consideration might be the passenger and crew lists and copies of wireless messages, which are active records, showing who was on board, the survivors and those who drowned, and that messages had successfully been sent.
Traditionally historical sources have roughly divided into two: primary and secondary. According to Arthur Marwick: “primary sources are sources which came into the actual period of the past which the historian is studying, they are relics and traces left by the past while secondary sources are those accounts written later by historians looking back upon a period in the past.”
In practice, primary sources might be regarded as being original material, such as registers and files, while secondary sources is material which provides background rather than unique information about your ancestors. Unique is the key word here for secondary material is usually printed and available in multiple copies in libraries and elsewhere. Reference books, for example, are secondary material. There is some overlap, such newspapers and directories which can provide unique information about individuals but which are available in multiple copies.
I am not sure that the divide between primary and secondary sources means very much in family history. Our interests and goals are very different to those of traditional historians. We are less concerned with secondary sources, for example, as we are searching for names which may not always be found in reference books. More importantly the divide is meaningless for a number of key genealogical resources, such as newspapers and directories. As printed items both newspapers and directories are not unique (a criteria of secondary sources), but they refer to contemporaneous events (so primary).     
The divide in genealogical record sources should perhaps be between “direct” and “indirect” sources. Direct sources are by far the most important because they directly describe our ancestors. Photographs reveal what our ancestors looked like, baptismal registers record individual baptisms, while muster rolls list sailors and soldiers one by one. Directories and newspapers are also direct sources, because they include names, but both of course they can be used indirectly. For example directories often include descriptions of the towns which they are covering as well as list all the innkeepers, while newspapers will graphically describe the flood in which an individual was drowned.
Indirect sources are unlikely to mention individual ancestors, but can provide important background about their lives. War diaries and regimental histories may well describe a unit’s activities but not mention individuals, although they are a key source to understanding an uncle or grandfather’s wartime experiences. Maps too are important as they can show the area where an aunt lived or the land she owned. You are unlikely to use indirect resources when you begin your family tree, but you may turn to them as your research progresses or if you decide to research an interesting forebear in depth.

‘A bonnie fighter’: Jenny Foster Newton (1853-1937)

Years ago I researched an early female social campaigner in Richmond and wrote an article for the Local History Society journal. This is an edited version of the piece:

Miss Foster Newton played a considerable part in the religious, political and social life of Richmond was part of a remarkable generation who shook up towns and villages up and down the country.  They did not have the high profile of the suffragettes, such as the Pankhursts, but it can be argued that these women played as big a part in gaining the vote through their good work at local level.
That they could do this largely came about because of an anomaly in electoral law which gave women who were ratepayers, normally spinsters, the right to vote in local elections and to stand for election as councillors, poor law guardians and for local education boards.  From the 1870s a small number of strong-minded women took advantage of this loophole to gain places on these various bodies where they principally successful in trying to humanise the poor law and improve the lot of the poorest in society.
Jenny Foster Newton was born into a prosperous nonconformist family in Brighton.  Her family moved to Richmond in 1866, when she was thirteen.  Her early years were not untypical of young ladies of her class and generation.  She later recalled

Before I became a thoughtful woman I spent my time in riding, boating, and other amusements… I used to scamper across the Brighton Downs with my father, and even now I think I could ride across country with any pack.

Like so many from her social background she was drawn into social work through visiting the poor in Holy Trinity parish which she began at the age of 24 in 1877. 
As she grew older she became involved in many of the charitable causes in the town.  She became secretary of the Princess Mary Adelaide Home for Servants (which was on Richmond Green), the Sanitary Aid Association, and of a branch of the Christian Police Association.  She also served on the committees of local branch of the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Rescue Home.
It was perhaps inevitable that she would be drawn towards the poor law.  During the 1880s a few women were being elected as guardians of their local poor law union.  Miss Foster Newton was elected in 1888 when she came top of the poll with a majority of 495.  It is likely that the local Liberals encouraged her candidature.  She herself later suggested that:

public opinion was right for this movement; the support of an influential committee, together with the valuable support of the Press secured  this position for women, which I feel more and more convinced, is amongst the useful spheres for women’s work.

Even though she admitted she knew nothing about the duties of the poor law guardians on her election, Miss Foster Newton threw herself into her new role with considerable force.  She was a breath of fresh air insisting for example, the right of guardians to visit the workhouse at any time.  Miss Foster Newton took a particular interest in pauper children, many of whom came from broken homes.  She set up a scheme whereby they were boarded with foster parents in Westmoreland.  For the youngest orphan children she insisted that the guardians provide a nursery ‘as bright as possible.’  
As a result of her hard work she was regularly re-elected.   Her example also encouraged other women.  By 1900 there were three other lady guardians.
Miss Foster Newton’s concern for the poor was intimately bound up with the temperance movement.  In mid-Victorian England drink was a major destroyer of people’s lives especially amongst the poorest in society.
At the same time that she took up district visiting she also took over responsibility for a British Workingman’s Coffee House, known as the Traveller’s Rest, in Sheen Road.  She later said that the Traveller’s Rest was started to meet the demand ‘for temperance refreshments.  At the same time there was great difficulty in obtaining refreshment at other than licensed houses.’
She established the Richmond Branch of the British National Women’s Temperance Association.  The annual reports tells the reader as much about Miss Foster Newton as it does about the work of the Association itself.  She ruled the branch with a rod of iron, which may help explain the high turnover of members, and entered into the somewhat disputatious affairs of the Association nationally with enthusiasm. 
Despite early successes such as organising ‘a happy day for the working classes’ in Petersham which was attended eight hundred people and placing an advertisement on the bus which ran between Richmond and Kingston, it is quite clear that the Association had little influence in the town.  The town council almost always rejected her suggestions for closing pubs or reducing licensing hours. 
Every year there was a symbolic vote about providing alcohol at the Christmas luncheon for the paupers in the workhouse.  Occasionally Miss Foster Newton secured enough support to prevent beer and other stimulants being served, but this was rare.  It became quite an issue with candidates supported by local licensees standing against her at election time.  In turn she mobilised women electors urging:

all women who have votes for the election of guardians and town councillors to see that they make use of their privileges and cast their votes in favour of candidates who will support measures of temperance reform.  A large number of people now living on the rates would not be in our workhouse were it not for the excessive use of strong drink.

Although a number of local clergy and the concerned middle classes supported her, she had little support amongst working people.  One annual report of the Association noted:

By the courtesy of Rev G.G. Normadale, the Primitive Methodist Schoolroom was opened from 12 to 1 o’clock for the free use of the men working on the roads.  Coffee was on sale at 1d a cup. The response was so indifferent the effort was soon discontinued.

Campaigns for prohibition in Britain, unlike America, had little real impact.  Too many of its supporters were cranks.  And, sadly, to their number must be added Miss Foster Newton.  She must have lost a lot of support with such small-minded actions as:

Just before Xmas Day [1902] your secretary wrote and issued in circular form nearly 2000 letters to residents in Richmond and the neighbourhood pointing out the dangers of giving alcoholic refreshments to carriers, dustmen, postmen and others which is often thoughtlessly done at this season of the year.  Several replies were received expressing approval and promising co-operation in the effort to promote sobriety amongst the working classes.

As she got older she seems to have become rather a lonely person, opinionated and difficult to deal with.  She never married, although she lived for a number of years with a Miss Rachel Sanders, ‘a great and intimate friend’ who died unfortunately early in 1896. A Gorham bedstead with fittings was given to Richmond Royal Hospital in her memory.
Women like Jenny Foster Newton no longer exist.  She was a lady of independent means with firm views which she had the confidence to advocate.  In a less certain age we can only admire her for this.  When she took up a cause, as with temperance, she gave her all.  An admirer, Miss Anne Hall, JP of Wanstead, told the press after her death:

What a bonnie fighter she was!  This year, at 84 years of age, she went straight from her bed after an illness, to the court at Richmond to plead for a cause she was interested in. Nothing deterred her, she would beard a cabinet minister, face a court, or write to the press with equal fervour if, in her opinion, the case was good, and needed a defender.

Richmond is the poorer for no longer having people of the strength of will and opinion as Miss Foster Newton.  She fought for what she believed and left a legacy of good work behind her. 

Biographical note
There is some material about Jenny Foster Newton at the Richmond Local Studies Library in the Old Town Hall (  In particular there is a thin file of press cuttings.  The other useful source at the Library is the annual reports of the Richmond Branch of the British National Temperance Association (1894-1923).  She is also mentioned in Patricia Hollis’s Ladies Elect: women in English local government, 1865-1914 (London, 1987) which is where I can first came across her.

Friday, 1 April 2011

General news

1. You can now pay for my research services by PenPal.
2. I'll talking about Researching Brewery and Publican Ancestors at  the Family History Society for Essex at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford on 21 May (2.30pm) and The National Archives on 13 October (2pm).
3. Look out for articles by me in May's Who Do You Think You Are Magazine. One is the first guide to The National Archives' spiffy new catalogue the Discovery System.